This show’s opening title card, if it can even be called that, is quietly brilliant. It only lasts a moment, the title flashing over an extreme wide shot, while a reverb-heavy murmur of white noise lifted right from the soundboard of Eraserhead quietly croaks. It provides a valuable reminder, amid all of the one-liners and flights of absurdist fancy and general hilarity, that The Last Man on Earth is a deeply mournful and contemplative series about extreme loneliness.
The sweeping exterior shots that provide the backdrop also dwarf the human figures, emphasizing the crushing solitude of post-virus life. And that sublimely inhuman tape-hiss, like an echo turning in on itself ad infinitum, or a radio signal impotently searching for help, is a remarkably accurate representation of being alone. Convenience ostensibly keeps the Malibu gang together. They all know full well that they’d have an easier go at survival when operating as a functional multi-cell organism, but someone like Phil Stacy Miller never needed anyone else to get by. (Until, you know, the appendix inflammation.) He stuck with this collection of generously flawed survivors because spending protracted time alone makes people crazy; he needed non-sporting-goods friends, and the same goes for those who couldn’t hack it on their own, even if they wanted to.
The darker undercurrent of the show takes the fore in the surreal, inspired opening sequence of “Valhalla,” with Phil Miller’s hiatus-delayed burial. This show is at its best when smoothly blending its existential concerns with its left-field humor instead of tending to them separately, and Todd cry-singing Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” while Gail poorly accompanies him on accordion is the most Bergmanesque comic tableau since a black-gown-clad Carol threw herself into the ocean during Tandy’s fake funeral. By setting their fallen comrade adrift aboard a Viking funeral raft bedecked with piñatas, American flags, and a shudder-inducingly bad portrait, the Malibu gang allow themselves to be wounded by this loss in individual ways, all of which advance individual character arcs. For a bunch of people who watched everyone they knew and loved die gruesome and painful deaths, death still hits these characters hard. In the words of De La Soul founder Posdnuos, sometimes the body needs to feel stress to appreciate the joy, and death smacks the Malibu gang right in the face with a reminder of how precious life is.
This reminder makes Melissa manic and desperate, which turns out to be the best of all possible acting modes for January Jones. Todd’s soft pass on her marriage proposal removes the bottom-most Jenga piece from Melissa’s precarious tower of self-esteem, sending her careening into a spiral of emotional neediness and boot-biting. The sight of Jones nibbling individual rhinestones off of Carol’s boots could be oil-painted and mounted in the Louvre, and her matter-of-fact explanation of “Oh, I’m un-bedazzling Carol’s boots with my teeth” flawlessly seals the scene. (How tragic that we should only now realize that January Jones would’ve annihilated in a guest role on 30 Rock.)
Her sad attempts to wriggle back into Todd’s romantic affections feel like a bit of a retread, especially when the other end of Todd’s plot is his flimsy forestalling of his and Gail’s coming-out as a couple. Though Todd’s selection of “bub” as the ultimate nonsexual nickname is both very funny and makes him sound like a helpful, friendly version of Wolverine, this emerging love triangle feels a little soapish for a program that’s proven itself capable of more.
Tandy establishes his route for the episode with his suspiciously specific protestations to Carol that he’s totally over Mike’s death and his grief for Phil is in no way related, no siree. He stumbles through the five classic stages of guilt: inept archery, questionable impersonations, offers to raise the deceased’s now-fatherless child, framing for racially inflammatory slam poetry, and finally, acceptance. Sifting through unresolved confusion, frustration, and helplessness in his inability to save his brother, Phil makes some meaningful progress — and what’s more, very nearly comprehends that he’s growing up. Tandy might as well have nicked the diss of “You’re no Viking, you’re a suck-king!” from an eight-year-old, but his concession that he may not be the best choice to raise Phil and Erica’s baby represents a big step forward for the man who destroyed his deathtrap of a DIY cradle earlier that day in a tantrum.
At this point, Mike’s arrival must be coming next week, and his return to humanity will surely threaten to undo all of Tandy’s progress in “Valhalla.” If the death of his surrogate brother was enough to bring out all these messy feelings, then the un-death of his non-surrogate brother should overwhelm him on an unprecedented level. One might assume Mike’s survival would be good news, but with Tandy, nothing’s ever that easy.
The Malibu gang gains a potent symbol in Phil Stacy Miller’s coffin, drifting freely at sea. “Valhalla” finds them all scrambling to latch onto one another, grasping for something secure in the wake of Phil’s destabilizing death. The feeling of constant loneliness endemic to being alive (that’s a universal thing, right?) gets acuter in the midst of loss, and they need to believe that they’re not just surrounded by choppy water. Phil’s coffin washed ashore, and Mike’s on his way. Listen closely — you can hear the loneliness dissipating. It almost sounds like radio static, slowly fading out.
- The Story of Us is a 1999 Rob Reiner film in which Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer portray a married couple who lost their spark and attempt to re-fall in love following a trial separation. It is also the title of a 2010 Taylor Swift single about #thatawkwardmoment when you run into your ex at the Country Music Television Awards. It is a credit to writer Erica Rivinoja that I have no idea which one that joke is supposed to refer to.
- Did you know a regulation bottle of white wine doesn’t even fill a single Big Gulp? Something about that feels wrong. Is this even America anymore?
- Ever the globetrotting worldly type, Tandy correctly identifies the old Australian proverb of “That’s not a knife, this is a knife.”
- Phil Stacy Miller’s “George Jefferson hair” looks like something straight out of the November ’96 issue of Ebony, and is perfect.
- Does Carol say “your lips taste like shart” after kissing Todd? Can you say “shart” on network TV? If you can’t say “shit” on network TV, it doesn’t make much sense to be permitted “shart,” but the arcane governances of Standards and Practices have never been fully understood by modern scholars.
- As terrible and half-baked as Tandy’s closure song is, Melissa still can’t get it out of her head. Neither can I. It’s pretty catchy!
- How is stucco made?